Feud between Pilane and Kgafela exposes chinks in the Bakgatla administration

The protracted and bitter battle between the leaders of the Bakgatla baKgafela, based in South Africa and Botswana, has everything to do with the riches of the “tribe”* and little to do with genuine concern for the plight of their subjects, who continue to wallow in poverty.

Not so long ago Kgosi Kgolo Kgafela Kgafela II and his royal uncle Kgosi Nyalala Pilane were inseparable. The two were more than just blood relatives; they shared the same vision for Bakgatla in Botswana and South Africa. Kgafela was the supreme leader of Bakgatla both in Botswana and South Africa, while Kgosi Pilane was Kgafela’s right hand man overseeing the “tribe” in Moruleng, North West province, South Africa. Pilane was Kgafela’s funder, while Kgafela was his protector.

History shows that, following a heated dispute over the chieftainship, Kgafela’s father Kgosi Linchwe recommended to the premier of the North West province in the 1990s that Kgosi Pilane be appointed Bakgatla leader in South Africa. Despite overwhelming support from Kgafela’s base in Mochudi, Botswana, Pilane never received full support from his “tribespeople” and remains a polarising figure.

During the reign of Linchwe II in Botswana, Pilane grew increasingly powerful and wealthy. The “tribe” invested heavily in the mining industry, partnering with giant mining companies such as Anglo American. The net assets of the “tribe” in platinum currently exceed two billion rands. These investments have been the source of much dispute. Kgosi Pilane has been accused of using the resources of the “tribe” to enrich himself at the expense of thousands of his subjects who are living in abject poverty. According to a recent forensic audit, most of the assets of the “tribe” are registered under Pilane’s name, which suggests mismanagement and corruption.

With overwhelming support from Mochudi, Pilane ran the show in Moruleng, suppressing dissent and intimidating those who questioned his leadership style. When the people of the “tribe” accused him of corruption and wanted to depose him, Mochudi defended him. Pilane’s financing of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) might also have insulated him from charges.

When Kgafela became the paramount chief of the Bakgatla, records show that he and the royal family in Mochudi continued to receive millions of rands from Moruleng – therefore, by extension, from Pilane himself. In his first years as Bakgatla paramount chief, Kgafela seemed to enjoy the perks and the pleasures that came with his position. He failed to take Pilane to task over his alleged corrupt practices. It was only three years after he was made the leader of Bakgatla that he ordered an audit of Bakgatla operations in Moruleng.

The fallout

Who would have thought that Kgafela and Pilane would one day fall out and become bitter rivals? Some Bakgatla find it very difficult to believe that the two men are estranged to the point that they are no longer on speaking terms.

The fallout began when Kgafela decided to relocate from Botswana to South Africa in May 2012, following charges of assault and legal battles with the government of Botswana. According to Kgafela advisors, the “rot” Kgafela found at the Bakgatla baKgafela administration forced him to take action. One of his first tasks was to call for the forensic audit of all operations. The decision to audit “tribal” operations and the subsequent outcome of the audit are two of the main reasons why Kgafela and Pilane fell out. Pilane felt that Kgafela was targeting him with the audit and wanted him off the throne.

The audit unearthed enormous irregularities in the management of the affairs of the “tribe”. The financials were in a mess and corruption was rampant. The audit implied that the person to blame was Pilane and some of his senior officers. However, some Bakgatla pointed out that Kgafela should also take the blame, since he had received millions of rands from Moruleng.

Together with some members of the royal family, Kgafela tried to force Pilane out of office in 2012. Initially Pilane reluctantly agreed to retire and even submitted his retirement letter to Kgafela. But Pilane later changed his mind, alleging that his resignation happened under duress. He then turned on Kgafela, forcing him out of Moruleng in August last year. Pilane remains in charge of the operations in Moruleng. His king, Kgafela, is in the wilderness.

Even in the wilderness, with little support from the royal family in Moruleng, Kgafela has waged a spirited fight against his royal uncle. He has reported him to the law enforcement agencies and wants them to investigate him for corruption and fraud.

In the midst of this feud, the following questions remain answered: If the “tribe” had not been bestowed with such mineral wealth, would there have been such power struggles? Why is Pilane still refusing to let go of the chieftainship? Surely he never questioned Kgafela’s authority as the supreme leader of the “tribe”? Would Kgafela have relocated to Moruleng if the place was without any promise of wealth and material gain? Is he genuinely interested in cleaning up the mess in Moruleng or he is just another rummager waiting to amass spoils from the platinum-rich “tribe”?

At the root of the divide between Kgafela and Pilane is the question of who can control the multibillion rand empire of the “tribe”. Meanwhile, the Bakgatla who ought to be benefiting are suffering.

* Editor’s note: “Tribe” is used in this article in quotation marks as acknowledgement that it is a problematic term, both conceptually and ideologically.

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